So, You’ve Been Demoted – Ultimate Guide to Overcoming It

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We spend so much of our time focused on the positive that the negative seems to fall by the wayside. We articulate countless articles detailing the beauty and effort behind achieving your dreams and moving up the corporate ladder, achieving an American mainstay of promotion through grit and grind. But, with the overwhelming desire for upward motion and progression, we tend to overlook the possibility of the opposite. The dreaded, yet often occurring, demotion. Once demoted, those twinkles in the eye of riches and higher positions can fade away.

Being demoted is more common than you’d like to imagine. Though we don’t often hear of the backward movement, a study by OfficeTeam found that 46% of HR managers have seen someone at their company move downward on the company ladder.

While surprising, it makes sense. Lower-performance players will always exist, but the desire to share the information is understandably low. We don’t hear of the commonality of demotions because no one wants to share that information.

Regardless, demotions happen often, especially in white-collar industries. If you have been demoted, you may feel as if the floor has crumbled around you, leaving you in a career abyss, unable to find a rope worth climbing. But, have no fear. Many workers have found their way out of a demotion.

In this guide, we will break down what to do after a demotion and how to progress your career.

What Exactly Is a Demotion? – There Are Levels to This

When we hear the term demotion, we immediately think of a significant downgrade. A cartoonish situation involving moving from CEO to a ditch digger below the office floor. It carries a heavy connotation, and there’s some truth to that. Ultimately, there is no positive spin on being pushed down on the corporate ladder.

Sure, you can use the fuel to eventually become better than you were before,
but regarding the actual present act of losing your position, it’s objectively negative.

Though always negative, there’s a plethora of aspects to demotions that require explanation. It’s not always as simple as a worker doing a job poorly, so they are moved to a less-important position. Sometimes, a demotion can be a pay decrease due to trouble in the company, a downward move that’s a mutual decision, or a lower title and power but the same pay. Therefore, not all demotions are bad, but the majority of them come from unwanted situations.

Simply put, it all depends.

Regardless of the exact scenario, a demotion can be a significant blow to your working (or personal) ego. Therefore, it’s important to decide how to handle the situation.

Most Common Reasons

Demotions can come in all shapes and sizes, though the trajectory is always downward.

How you handle and grow from the situation depends entirely on why it happened. Though it would be impossible to note every exact scenario that leads to a demotion, we will pinpoint the most common causes.

According to the aforementioned OfficeTeam survey, the most common causes are:
  • Poor Performance (39% of those surveyed)- in this case, the employee was frankly not good enough at their role to continue their job. They were not bad enough an employee to outright fire, but they needed a change of pace or responsibility.
  • Employee Was Recently Promoted But Didn’t Succeed (38%)- The managerial team thought the worker was ready to move up to the new role, but quickly regretted their decision. Or, the employee was moved up to the new position and decided that they couldn’t handle (or didn’t like) the new role.
  • Organizational Restructuring or Position Eliminated (16%)- This is the least ego-crushing option of the three. In this case, the demotion was not due to poor performance or unwanted responsibility. The company was struggling enough to cut higher positions or decided to take things in a different direction. Though, this decision to cut the position could be based on poor employee performance, though usually only a case in small companies.
  • Voluntary Step (6%)- The employee decided they didn’t want to work in a higher role. Maybe they believe that someone else would be better suited or they no longer wanted the higher stress. Maybe they aren’t ready for retirement but feel as if they are no longer in need of a higher role. You see this a lot in leadership positions when the employee inches toward retirement age. Think CEO stepping down to consultant.

Most likely, the reason you were demoted falls within one of these 4 categories.

Find Out Why You Were Demoted

Before taking the next necessary career steps to continue growth and rebuild your ego, you must find out which category you fall into. You must find out exactly why you were demoted.

Reach out directly to the supervisor that demoted you and ask for a reason. If possible, do so in person. Let them know that you would like to have a personal meeting regarding the situation. Once in the meeting (whether via phone or in person) inquire about the decision with the highest of grace. Keep emotions aside and ask politely. Tell them you just want to know the reasoning so that you can improve in the future.

It’s possible that the employer already told you their reasoning when you were demoted. If you still have specific questions regarding it, it’s okay to send an email or ask for a meeting.

In no way should this be taken as an opportunity to plead your case or beg for your job back, though. Creating excuses or pinning blame will only reinforce the employer’s decision. You must accept the penalty, regardless of how hard it is on your ego. More often than not, the blame rests upon your shoulders (whether you want to hear it or not).

There Are Unique Situations, Though

If, in an extreme case, the situation is a misconception or miscommunication, you need to let the employer know without sounding too emotional or deflective. State your case emphatically. Let them know that you accept the demotion and aren’t attempting to combat it, but you need to clear up miscommunication.

For example, if you were demoted due to not doing your job, but didn’t know the task was your job, you would say something like:

“I understand the situation and accept the demotion. As a professional, I believe I need to clarify the situation. I am not attempting to transfer blame, but I was unaware that the task had been delegated to me. I never received an email or notice regarding the project and timeline. But, I apologize for the miscommunication.”

Take Time to Reflect

Regardless of the reasoning for your demotion (whether amicable or rancor), you need to take time to reflect on the overall situation. Even if you decided to step down because the responsibility of the higher role was too much, there’s still a need for independent thought.

Why was the responsibility too overwhelming? Is there something you need to improve on? Have you reached the actual limit of your career heights?

The act of self-reflection becomes even more crucial if you were demoted due to poor performance. At that point, it’s important to understand why the situation happened and what can be done to improve it in the future. Overall, it’s important to remember that you are going to get better and improve from the situation. It’s the darkest before the dawn, after all.

What went wrong? How did you find yourself in a place in which you couldn’t do your job or didn’t have the energy to put in the corresponding effort? At the end of the day, you were once enough of a skilled and energetic worker to get to the position you lost. So, how did you lose it?

Ultimately, you may find that you have grown jaded in the industry you are in. The demotion may be a blessing in that case, pushing you toward pursuing a career you find more enjoyable. The Great Resignation, for example, saw this situation happen in droves. After time to reflect during the pandemic shutdown, plenty of workers decided they no longer enjoyed their positions and moved on.

It’s possible you have overstayed your welcome and lost your job, causing your poor performance.

How Can You Improve?

Even if you believe that your lack of motivation caused your poor performance (and you are moving to a new industry), you still need to look into what you can do to improve as a professional.

If you were demoted due to poor performance or being unable to fill the role, now is the time to figure out how you can better yourself as a worker. How can you make sure that a demotion does not come about again? How can you become the professional you need to be?

Sometimes this improvement can be as simple as time off. It’s possible you need a second from the burnout to help become a better worker. In fact, according to a 2022 survey by Aflac, employees who suffer from high levels of burnout report lower job satisfaction (55%), lower confidence that their employers care about them (47%), negative perceptions of work-life balance (55%) and a higher likelihood of seeking another job in the next year (56%).

Sometimes you just needed a moment of humility, bringing your work ethic back to the amount it was when you were a humble and eager professional.

If you did something significantly bad or troublesome to get demoted, now is the time to figure out why you did so.

Ask your boss or close supervisor for a more detailed performance review regarding the situation. This information will give you more of an outlook on how to improve as an employee. And, if the company wants you to succeed, they should have no problem providing this information. You can also ask a fellow employee for their opinion.

Take the criticism and work on yourself.

Rebuild Your Confidence

“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”

Henry Stanley Haskins, American Author

At the end of the day, a demotion can be a huge blow to your professional confidence and ego. Sometimes you need this. Oftentimes, the blow is too much to handle.

Remember that this isn’t the end of your career path. Keep confidence in yourself and remain positive. You will overcome this setback and become the best employee you can be, even better than before. It’s just an obstacle in the way of your greater purpose.

It’s important to remember that you were demoted, not fired. You are still valuable enough to the company to remain on the payroll. You are still a good enough employee and human. As a professional, you can get back to where you were.

As always, if you believe the blow to be too crushing, it’s important to reach out to your support systems and get outside help. If you need help, there are always services like BetterHelp to provide psychiatric care.

Will You Stay?

A lot of times, someone that is demoted will hide their tale and run, quitting the company altogether. Other times (as we noted), the employee may decide the career isn’t right for them and leave.

On the other hand, some employees will stay and attempt to work their way back up the ladder, aiming toward the position they already had. If the employee decided to step down, they may stay at the company and enjoy the smaller role.

The next step becomes deciding where you want to be.
Will you stay at the current company or look elsewhere?
Will you change careers entirely?
Now is the time to decide.

If you are having trouble deciding, try making a list of pros and cons in regard to leaving or staying. This can help you organize your thoughts and ask for opinions from friends and family.

If you decide to leave, do so gracefully. Do not quit by throwing a fit, blaming others, or being overly dramatic. Resign with as much respect and humility as you would if a demotion wasn’t involved. Be professional and give a 2-week warning. Explain that you need a change of scenery to help better your career.

More on that later.

What to Do Next If You Stay?

If you decide to stay, you need to create a plan of how to rebuild or bolster your career. You have made the decision to swallow your pride and accept humility (an honorable decision). If that is the case, there are a few things to remember when making your plan.

Overall, your plan should pinpoint what you want from your career, where you want to end up, and what the necessary steps are to get there. Though you are not technically at the bottom or beginning, it’s important to treat the situation as if you are restarting your career journey. Obviously, the first attempt didn’t work.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when creating your plan:

It’s Not About ‘Winning’ Your Job

The immediate reaction to losing a promotion is the need to ‘win’ it back. You want to do everything you can to prove to your employer that the demotion was a mistake. Your goal becomes winning back the position you once held, like the rekindling of a romantic relationship.

The issue here is that of tunnel vision. Sure, getting the position back through hard work and effort would be nice, but it can quickly become an end goal and obsession. At the end of the day, the goal should be to go even further. Go past the position you once had.

In this way, it is like losing a romantic relationship. The goal of a breakup should not be to try and win the partner back but to improve yourself. Become a better person. Become a happier and more successful person. Then, if the partner comes back, great. If not, you are in a better place after having learned from your mistakes and the overall situation.

When you make the goal about a specific regaining of stature, you lose the whole learning lesson. You just end up falsifying what you believe is necessary to win the job back, not actually improving as a worker.

Increase Your Skills

If your demotion wasn’t due to lack of effort, but due to being unable to fill the role correctly, it may be time to hone your skills. It may be time to learn new skills, too. Not only will this help bolster your employee ability and climb the ladder, but it will help establish your confidence, too.

For example, let’s say you lost your management position because you were not good enough at being a leader. This could easily be due to a lack of experience in a leadership role. Therefore, you can ask a fellow supervisor questions and tips or take an online course.

If you lost a role because you didn’t fully understand a concept, you can see if there are certifications for it online.

You can always find resources that will help you build soft skills. You can ask your employer to let you cross-train, too, showing initiative to make up and learn from your mistakes.

Above and Beyond

At the end of the day, a demotion should be a wake-up call for something. Whether it’s a lack of effort or a lack of experience and skills, you need to put your best foot forward. Now is the time to go above and beyond and become a better worker than you were before.

Get better. Be better.

Let Go of Grudges

If you are upset at certain supervisors for gunning the demotion, let it go. The situation has already happened and it may have been out of their control. You have been kept on the team, so you were obviously worthy enough of looking twice at. There is no need to keep these grudges strong.

If you were mad at fellow employees for keeping their jobs while yours was cut, let it go. It may not have been their fault. Regardless, everyone is attempting to save their own skin and career in such trying times.

Take a deep breath and let any past animosity go. It’s time to treat this like a refresh and build for a brighter future, work relationships included.

What to Do If You Leave?

Let’s note this now: if you take the demotion as a sign to leave your employer, there is nothing wrong with that. Sometimes bridges are badly burned, workplaces are holding you back, or the industry is causing a lack of effort. If that’s the case, that’s okay. Sometimes we need to separate ourselves completely to help build back up.

Though we believe the option should be pondered carefully, if you believe leaving the job is your best bet to right your career track, do it.

If you do leave and look for a new job, there are a few things to remember.

Decide the Job Level

For a broad example, let’s say you were dropped from a general manager to an assistant manager. You leave your current employer and begin the job search. Should you apply for general manager or assistant manager roles?

It’s a tough question. The answer may not be one you want to hear.

Let’s harken back to the self-reflection period. You must decide if you were truly ready for the role you were put in. After all, there is a reason you were demoted. Maybe you truly do need more time at the assistant manager level, regardless of the employer. Maybe you should continue the demotion for a bit and get better at the job before moving up again.

It’s easy to aim for a higher-paying role, but maybe that’s not what you should do for the longevity of your career. Maybe a step back is necessary to build yourself into a better employee, allowing yourself to shoot well beyond general manager.

It takes humility, but it’s worth a thought.

What About the Resume?

Should you include your higher position on your new resume, despite losing it? Should you put that you were a general manager despite being dropped back to the assistant?

It depends.

There are a few factors at play. How long were you in the position? What role are you gunning for in your job search? And will your former employer back you up?

Ultimately, you never want to lie on a resume. Therefore, if you worked at a company for 3 years but only worked at the highest position for a few weeks, you are better off listing the job as the position you held before it. Going back to our broad managerial example: if you were only the general manager for a week of training, but were an assistant for a year, you might want to state your last job as an assistant manager.

Sure, having the highest title on your resume helps get attention, but if your former employer won’t back it up, you could find yourself caught in a web of lies. Don’t be a lie fly.

If you were in the general manager position for, say, 6 months, you can definitely list it as your last position.

Overall, be as honest as possible. If you felt you never truly achieved that higher role, then you are better off keeping the lower one on your resume.

Keep Pleasant With Your Former Employer

As we stated, a demotion can be extremely bitter. You may be hurt and wrathful, ready to lash out at those that demoted you. Don’t.

Never leave a job on bad terms unless it’s impossible not to (even then, you want to be the bigger person).

The thing is: though the company demoted you, you will still likely need to refer to them on your future applications. You will still need them as a reference to back up your work experience and prove that you were a great worker despite the demotion. As we have stated multiple times, the company still tried to keep you. They didn’t fire you. Therefore, they should be willing to give you a good recommendation going forward.

Never burn your bridges unless you have to. You want all of your former employers in your possible Roladex for future applications.

“There’s no fall greater than one from a burnt bridge”

 Carlos Wallace, American Author